Between them, the New Zealand Maritime Museum and the Auckland War Memorial Museum have the world’s most significant collections of traditional Pacific sailing vaka – the efficient multihulls that were the genesis for modern catamarans, proas and trimarans.

The safe rounding of Cape Bojador, a dangerous and previously impassable point on the coast of Africa a mere 700 nautical miles from Lisbon, by the Portuguese captain Gil Eanes and his crew in 1434 heralded the beginning of Europe’s Age of Discovery.

But on the far side of the world, human history’s greatest Age of Discovery was already over. By then Pacific Island peoples in ocean-going vaka (Māori: waka) had found and settled the last habitable places on earth. This great expansion across thousands of miles of the world’s largest ocean was completed when Aotearoa New Zealand was found and settled during or before the 13th century.

The prow of a Solomon Islands fishing vaka.

These great voyages occurred in both directions – there is ample evidence to show return voyaging from Aotearoa to other Pacific Islands, and to and from other outliers like Hawai’i and Rapanui Easter Island. The kūmara, a sweet potato that is found throughout Polynesia, was fetched from South America by Pacific Island voyagers.

Thor Heyerdahl, famous for his controversial Drift Theory, which his Kontiki Voyage of 1946 set out to demonstrate, believed South Americans introduced the sweet potato to the islands of the Pacific. But it seems the reverse was true: Polynesian navigators sailed there, and returned with it.

Waka in Tauranga for the Waka Hourua Festival and Hokule’a arriving in Honolulu from Tahiti in 1976.


All this voyaging was accomplished in vaka moana – double-hulled oceanic voyaging canoes, that are predecessors of the efficient cruising multihulls of today. Navigation on these long voyages was done without any modern tools – sextants, noonday sun-sights, chronometers or astronomical tables – and without access to any metals, so no compasses as we know them.

Aotearoa New Zealand was the last archipelago to be found and settled. So it’s fitting that, between them, the Auckland War Memorial Museum and the New Zealand Maritime Museum Hui Te Ananui a Tangaroa have one of the world’s most significant collections of Pacific vaka. Two full-size replica vaka moana form part of the floating exhibits at the latter. And the huge Kiribati voyaging proa Taratai II takes up most of the space in the Pacific gallery inside. More on them later.

When the first Portuguese struggled around Bojador, fearing they’d never return, most of oceanic Pacific voyaging was already over – for a variety of possible reasons. Perhaps all the available land had been found; on smaller islands (Rapanui is one example) the large trees needed for oceanic vaka building were disappearing; an El Nino period may have changed wind patterns; and possibly, a series of tsunami could have destroyed many vaka moana where they were hauled up on shore.

Whatever the reason, the great Age of Discovery of the Pacific was already over before Europe’s had even begun.

This is a story only recently being told in full. It started with the 1938 book Vikings of the Sunrise, by Māori scholar Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck). It was continued in practice by David Lewis, a New Zealand adventurer and yachtsman. He experimented with navigating the old way in the 1960s on his Wharram-designed catamaran Rehu Moana, in which he made the first known circumnavigation by a multihull and wrote about it in his 1972 book, We, the Navigators.

Waka hourua Tairawhiti crew member.

The ancient art of oceanic navigating the Polynesian way was fully rediscovered by Hawaiians like Nainoa Thompson, Milton (Shorty) Bertelmann, and Māori men like Sir Heke-nuku-mai-ngā-iwi (Hec) Busby. For this they relied on one of the last living master navigators of this tradition, Mau Piailug from Satawai, one of the Caroline Islands in Micronesia.

Interest picked up in 1976 with the building in Hawai’i of the Hōkūle’a, a 62-foot ‘performance-accurate’ wa’a kaulua by the Polynesian Voyaging Society. And, simultaneously, with the building of a proa Taratai on the Kiribati Island of Tarawa – a private project initiated by the New Zealand adventurer, writer and film-maker James Spiers. Taratai was built by islanders under the direction of Teauba Teakei, entirely in the customary way – a planked hull, sewn together with hand-made ropes of coconut fibre. Yes, she did leak. Quite a bit.

A proa from Tikopia in the Auckland Museum.

Hōkūle’a is not truly traditional: the hulls are plywood, covered with fibreglass. She has once capsized, in high wind and seas southwest of the Island of Moloka’i, with the loss of a crew member, Eddie Aikau. Much has been re-learned about the practicalities of sailing oceanic vaka since then. Hōkūle’a has even done a circumnavigation.

Under Mau’s tuition, 16 men were initiated into the Order of Pwo in 2007, to become palu, or oceanic navigators. Traditionally this apprenticeship would take at least 15 years.


Most recently, the books Vaka Moana, Pathways of the Birds and Reawakened [see boxes] reveal more of the story. This is evident in the renaissance of traditional vaka moana voyaging methods and craft. Vaka moana are sailing the world’s oceans again – and they have much to teach us about multihull navigation even today.

Waka hourua Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti’s bow carvings.

For example, it’s not unusual for modern cruising yachts to lose electric power at sea. Which means no GPS, satnav or radar; no electronic boat speed indicators, no depth sounders, no motors. For skippers of these boats, a working knowledge of traditional Pacific navigating techniques is the route to landfall. No need to activate the EPIRB and call out expensive rescue missions, just follow the old way. In many cases, a combination of dead-reckoning, and following birds will lead you home.

Observing birds has the effect of vastly increasing the target size of any island you’re heading towards. Many seabirds – petrel species are an example – forage at sea but roost on land at night. Some have a flying range of hundreds of miles. Observing the direction petrels fly in the evening is a sure indicator of where to go.

Te Aomarama Abraham-Toa and Ngawaiata Ranapia racing ropes aboard the waka hourua Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti.

These overlapping circles of expanded targets make most Pacific Islands in fact hard to miss. The exceptions would be isolated islands like those of Aotearoa New Zealand. But traditionally, many Pacific Island cultures noticed the kārewarewa – long-tailed cuckoo – a land bird, heading south on an annual migration. Other birds too. There had to be a forested land there, so they set out to find it. It was a wellreasoned voyage of discovery.


A most telling graphic is the frontispiece of Vikings of the Sunrise, which depicts the settlement of the Pacific as a giant arrow, going west to east across the Pacific from Indonesia. Against prevailing winds.

Unlike Heyerdahl’s drift theory, this pre-supposes craft that could tack into the wind (vaka) and has the built-in safety factor of explorers always being able to get back home easily. This also implies exploration with deliberate intent – predicted destinations. The vectors of all this were the vaka moana. So, it’s worth looking at them again, and from a modern perspective. For in every way, they were (still are) remarkable sailing craft.

Haunui tied up at the Auckland Maritime Museum.


To jump to the present: there’s a poster commonly seen in high-pressure work places. It reads: “Fast – Good – Cheap. Choose any two.”


Similarly, in the world of sailboat design there’s an oft-cited mantra that says you can’t have a yacht that is simultaneously fast, safe, unsinkable and comfortable. But owners of cruisng catamarans of contemporary design would respectfully demur. They know this favoured mix is entirely possible to achieve. And all because of the advances made centuries ago by what we often condescendingly call ‘pre-technological’ or ‘stone-age’ cultures.

The development of modern sailing multihulls has accelerated spectacularly in the last 30 years. This is an irony, seeing that European navigators first encountered oceanic voyaging catamarans in the Pacific in the 16th Century. From the first encounter, the European sailors were amazed at the speed of the indigenous craft. Indeed, in Spanish and Dutch colonial Phillipines and Indonesia, native multihulls would be despatched whenever an urgent message needed to get through.

Steering sweep on the waka hourua Haunui.

But sadly, perhaps as a result of cultural chauvinism, European sailing ship and yacht designers never really took up on this heritage.


The early explorers of the Pacific were so smug in their cultural chauvinism and assumption of technological superiority, they persisted for centuries with square-rigged monohull ships. While it is true that European ships did have a higher cargo capacity than the Pacific sailing craft, it is one of the oversights of history that the modern development of sailing multihulls by Western designers only began in the 1960s.

A model of a seagoing vaka from Tonga in the Auckland Maritime Museum.

But the Europeans did note that the Pacific multihulls all employed variants of the lateen rig, which they had first seen employed by Arab dhows and Portuguese caravels. It seems this was invented concurrently with the Mediterranean (or Arabic) lateen. The difference is that the oceanic lateen has spars attached to two sides of the sail, the leading and lower edges.

But Pacific lateen sails were of a much more dizzying variety, with many regional variations. And they had a reefing option – this was achieved by drawing the two outer ends of the spars together with a tensioning line, de-powering the sail. They worked better than the lateens of the Old World. The high-aspect crab-claw sails of Eastern Polynesian multihulls, for instance, have been proven in recent wind-tunnel tests to be very efficient.

So what is the design heritage of these craft? How and why did they develop? And what can we still learn from them?

Find out next issue in part two. BNZ

The waka hourua Tairawhiti under sail. Photo: Gisborne Herald.